Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
For the past few years, when Sheldon and South Medford have squared off on the football field it's typically been in the regular season finale and with the Southwest Conference championship on the line.
That won't be the case tonight at Spiegelberg Stadium, but there's still plenty to be gained on both sides now that the Oregon School Activities Association utilizes power rankings for its state playoff structure.
"This game is not necessarily for a league championship this time but it's still a huge game," said Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson. "Our kids really like playing in Spiegelberg and seem to play well there, they're not afraid of a big stadium or atmosphere. Our kids cherish those Friday nights in Medford so we're looking forward to it."
Depending on your preference, the Irish come to town ranked either No. 1 (OregonLive.com) or No. 2 (The Associated Press) in the state. However you figure it, Sheldon (4-0, 2-0 SWC) poses quite a challenge for a South Medford team still trying to find its identity midway through the season.
"I kinda wish we were playing Sheldon a little bit later in the year because we're not there yet offensively but I think we're getting better and I like our approach now," said South Medford head coach Bill Singler. "I think we're spreading the field a little bit more plus we're getting some other variety in our offense, but we just need more consistency."
Consistency hasn't been an issue at Sheldon, although it's been a few weeks since the Irish have been seriously tested. Sheldon opened the season with solid wins over Southridge and Central Catholic before routing South Eugene and North Medford the past two weeks.
"The first two games were probably more beneficial to our kids than the last two," said Johnson, "although we were really sharp against North Medford last week. We'll get tested on Friday night, I know that."
South Medford (3-1, 1-1) enters the game with the leading defense in the SWC, at least statistically. The Panthers are allowing an average of only 148 yards and seven points per game.
Still, no team has offered up the kind of offensive firepower that Sheldon brings to town.
"They're going to score some big plays, we know that," said South Medford senior linebacker Pat Alexander. "We just have to make sure to not let that kill us and come back and make the next play."
Sheldon leads the SWC at 421 yards and almost 45 points per game, and is as potent running the ball as it is taking to the air. Making it all happen for the Irish is an offensive line that returns left tackle Brett Nielsen (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and right guard Tanner Davies (6-3, 265). Center Tony Tokatly (6-0, 195) is quick off the snap and the Irish also get a good push from left guard Henry Asay (6-2, 290) and right tackle Marcus McGovern (6-0, 190).
"Their offensive line is very good and they just play well together," said Singler. "They pull more guys than you see normally in a high school football team and like to get their center out leading things."
That combination of size and athleticism adds extra punch to simple screens to the wide receivers and running backs. In last week's win, Johnson said he had to rewind the film because he was so impressed to see Davies practically keeping pace with star senior Connor Strahm.
Strahm is the leading playmaker in all phases of the game for Sheldon. The senior has split time in the backfield this season to help offset a late start to the season for Mitch Lewis but is a matchup nightmare at receiver and bona fide threat in the Irish's secondary.
"He's only gotten better," Singler said of Strahm. "Against North he had three punt returns for a touchdown but two of them were called back. You pick your poison with him."
Strahm is the SWC's leading scorer with eight TDs overall, running for 267 yards and four TDs while scoring three times on 20 receptions.
"Everybody knows how good of a player Connor Strahm is but we have a bunch of really good skill kids, Connor just kinda overshadows them," said Johnson.
Quarterback Taylor Alie has completed 66 of 101 passes for 817 yards and eight touchdowns but also has been intercepted five times. The Irish got a breakout game from Yadie Dunmore last week against North Medford, with the transfer scoring twice, and will look to get him more involved. Lewis may see his first action of the season after recovering from a genetic knee disorder.
On the perimeter, Ivan Faulhaber (21 catches for 222 yards) and Dylan Lewis (10 catches for 145 yards) complement Strahm.
In order to slow the Irish, the Panthers will need standout performances from their defensive linemen. Led by Josh Bowden, Kyle Eli, Tristian Lallo and Garrett Watson, South Medford's defensive line hopes to occupy Sheldon's linemen while also getting pressure on Alie. If they can hold their own, that should open the door for linebackers Alexander, Joel Goin, Jon Lines and Anthony Gomez to swoop in for defensive stops.
"We're going to have to make the plays," said Alexander. "If the linemen can fill their gaps we'll have no problem tackling. We've just all got to work together."
"We have to have a perfect game to beat them, we know that," added the senior, "but this week we've been practicing the best we have so far so hopefully we can keep that up."
Johnson said he's definitely prepared his team to know that anything gained tonight will be earned.
"South's really good defensively it looks like to me," said the second-year head coach. "They sure play downhill and they're tough like all Bill Singler teams are. They're not big but sure are form tacklers who aren't afraid to gang tackle and play at full speed."
Sheldon has its own impact defenders in linebackers Faulhaber (6-3, 205) and James Banks (6-1, 225), who is a terror on the inside and covers ground quickly. Defensive ends Nielsen and Liam Talty (6-3, 200) join tackles Chet Spears (6-2, 300) and Jesuit transfer Mike Ralston (6-6, 240) in forming a brick wall in the trenches.
South Medford expects to continue utilizing the services of all three quarterbacks Joe McLaughlin, Craig Contreras and Mark Winans tonight, with the senior McLaughlin getting the start and the others used to provide a different look for the Irish.
The change of moving Christian Bowley from the backfield to utilize his abilities in open space paid immediate dividends in a pair of TDs last week in a 52-0 win over South Eugene, while Nick Phillips and Ben Casebier capably handled the ground game with their hard-charging efforts.
"We've talked about (Bowley) quite a big," said Johnson. "I don't think we can catch him if he gets into the open so we've talked about not letting him get in the open if we can help it."
Sheldon broke open a 14-12 game with a pair of TDs inside the final minute of the third quarter last year en route to a 35-12 victory made possible by five interceptions — two returned for a score. The Irish also had to rally for a 37-30 win in 2010.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry